Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

I have read no Jane Austen since high school, when no doubt a boyish prejudice prevented me from fully appreciating or understanding what I was reading, but I return to her now with – one hopes –greater maturity and appreciation. Sense And Sensibility was her first published novel, attributed only to “A Lady,” but its immediate success (all 750 copies of its first print run were sold) surely confirmed for Austen that her years of scribbling were not in vain. Its plot would not have surprised a 19th century readership, nor much separated Austen from her rivals in their eyes, but a careful reader would have been immediately impressed by her powers of observation, which bestow on each of her characters a uniqueness of personality or outlook that she can convey in a single phrase or subtle gesture, and likewise by her abundant sense of humour, sometimes subversive but never caustic, evident on almost every page.

The plot revolves around the romantic aspirations of the precocious Dashwood sisters, Elinor, 19, and Marianne, 16, who have lately been forced from their family home by their niggardly half-brother and his jealous wife. Elinor and Marianne, together with their mother and younger sister, move to a more modest home in the Devonshire countryside, where Marianne meets a handsome young man, John Willoughby, who seems to embody everything she wants in a man: good looks and good taste in music and poetry. But overcome by her affections, Marianne acts recklessly – at least by the social standards of 19th century England – and exposes herself to heartbreak when Willoughby abruptly announces his departure for London. Here we glimpse the meaning of the title, for Marianne, headstrong and openly affectionate, is the very embodiment of “sensibility,” while Elinor is perhaps prudent to a fault. Here is a sampling of Austen’s remarkable dialogue, a conversation between Elinor and Marianne about one of Elinor’s potential suitors:

“I do not attempt to deny,” she said, “that I think very highly of him – that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”
Marianne here burst forth with indignation –
“Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.”
Elinor could not help laughing. “Excuse me,” said she, “and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings. Believe them, in short, to be such as his merit, and the suspicion – the hope of his affection for me may warrant, without imprudence or folly. But farther than this you must not believe. I am by no means assured of his regard for me. There are moments when the extent of it seems doubtful; and till his sentiments are fully known, you cannot wonder at my wishing to avoid any encouragement of my own partiality, by believing or calling it more than it is. In my heart I feel little – scarcely any doubt of his preference. But there are other points to be considered besides his inclination.”

Typical of her writing, this passage displays Austen’s masterful control of the scene: Elinor cannot complete a sentence about either her own affections, or the potential affections of her suitor, without cutting herself off, searching for better words, whereas Marianne “bursts forth” with indignation, even to the point of being affronted, that her sister should be so guarded with her emotions. The shortest of Elinor’s sentences is also the most emphatic: “But farther than this you must not believe.” She is chiding Marianne for putting too much faith in romance and seduction, in her suitor’s “preference” or “inclination,” before those “other points” – all of them eminently practical – are discussed: the approval of parents, the matching of fortunes. As the plot develops, we discover that Elinor’s advice is sound, and it will be Marianne who most suffers from her failure to heed it.

There is a moral message to Sense And Sensibility, one that is thoroughly in accord with the mores of the time, but Austen is too clever by far for the narrow constraints of a moralizing tone, and the book’s abundant humour is one proof of this. Another snippet of dialogue, from much later in the novel, when Marianne waits impatient for word from Willougby, who has been painfully out of touch, but does not wish for Elinor to know of her fear and doubt:

A note was just then brought in, and laid on the table.
“For me?” cried Marianne, stepping hastily forward.
“No, ma’am, for my mistress.”
But Marianne, not convinced, took it instantly up.
“It is indeed for Mrs. Jennings; how provoking!”
“You are expecting a letter then?” said Elinor, unable to be longer silent.
“Yes, a little – not much.”
After a short pause, “you have no confidence in me, Marianne.”
“Nay, Elinor, this reproach from you – you who have confidence in no one!”
“Me!” returned Elinor in some confusion; “indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell.”
“Nor I,” answered Marianne with energy, “our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”

This is a marvellously funny exchange, first because both sisters are indeed concealing something, and second because the reader well knows that foiled romantic aspirations are the cause of both women’s pain. Imagine how a competent actress would deliver Marianne’s final line: “We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.” Marianne knows that she is concealing something, as well as she knows her sister does not communicate, and those lines – perhaps spoken in a haughty tone – convey exactly the opposite of their literal meaning. Note, also, that in this instance Elinor’s famed “sensibility,” her reticence to expose her emotional life even to her own sister, is a hindrance to intimacy, and in giving Marianne the wittier rejoinder, we may sense where Austen’s sympathies lie.

I will confess, in the end, a certain sadness in reading this book. Austen’s novel is a window into a culture long ago abandoned and forgotten, and though much ink has been spilled about the dreaded domestic sphere in which her characters move, it’s hard for me not to admire a world in which teenagers spoke in full sentences and social standing was to no small extent contingent on a full appreciation of art and literature and music. If the Dashwood sisters make no comment on the raging Napoleonic wars, their own concerns do not seem to me trivial or unworthy. Indeed, what Austen has accomplished is nothing short of the immortalization of a class of people history would otherwise have overlooked, and generations of readers have rewarded her efforts.